In celebration of the 40 year anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s Hotter than July, we spoke with engineer Lon Neumann, who provided a vivid account of how this classic record came to fruition.
The 1970s were a transcendent decade for Stevie Wonder. Between 1972 to 1976, he recorded, composed, and produced songs for himself and other artists at an astonishing rate. He released five landmark albums: Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and his magnum opus, Songs in the Key of Life. That four-year stretch became known as Stevie Wonder’s “classic period.” Through his partnership with Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, he expanded musical boundaries with the utilization of The Original New Timbral Orchestra, otherwise known as TONTO. After years of relentless recording and touring, Wonder took a well-deserved respite from the music business. While he was on sabbatical, disco and new wave genres began dominating the charts.
He returned in 1979, teaming up with Michael Braun, the producer of the documentary The Secret Life of Plants, to create the film score Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants.” Although the soundtrack achieved platinum-selling status, it was regarded as a disappointment, partially due to Motown not properly promoting the album. The album was historic by one measure: it was one of the first early digitally recorded albums. Experimenting with digital recording equipment would serve as a precursor for Wonder’s next triumph.
Four years after releasing Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder sought out a new location to begin recording his next studio effort. In 1979, he found what he was looking for when he purchased C.P. MacGregor Studios, a relic of a bygone radio recording era. Upon surveying the capabilities of the studio, he decided to rent a recording truck from Record Plant Studios to assist him in recording his new album. During this juncture, he had become good friends with Bob Marley and the impact of reggae music was penetrating his creative sensibilities. Another inspiration for Wonder while recording this album was the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who was trying to secure a national holiday for her husband. As a result, Wonder decided to get involved with the movement. The inner sleeve of his album was dedicated to Dr. King and featured a collage of five historical photos, with a message for his fans to support the movement of designating a national holiday in honor of Dr. King’s contribution to American society and mankind. Upon releasing his Dr. King tribute song, “Happy Birthday,” Wonder made it his mission to obtain a federal holiday for Dr. King through his Hotter than July tour in late 1980.
During the recording phase of this album, he was using state-of-the-art digital recording equipment from the Sony Corporation which set him apart from his contemporaries. Alongside Wonder was Lon Neumann, a seasoned engineer, who joined him from Record Plant Studios. His expertise became a valuable asset while assisting other engineers by setting up the groundbreaking equipment that captured Wonder’s incomparable talent. Their partnership continued for the next few years. As Wonder ushered in the new decade, he would regain his stature as one of the preeminent artists of the day.
On September 29, 1980, Hotter than July was released. It peaked at number three on the Billboard charts. The album spawned one chart-topping single, “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and four other singles, “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It,” “Lately,” “Happy Birthday,” and “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me.” In celebration of the album’s 40th anniversary, we spoke with engineer Lon Neumann, who provided a vivid account of how this classic record came to fruition.
How did you become involved with the making of this album?
I have to give you a little background for it to make sense. Steve had bought this property on Western Avenue below Wilshire in Los Angeles with a very interesting history. It had been a recording studio in the early days of radio before magnetic tape was even invented. It was that long ago. It was before television. It was a radio studio that was called the C.P. MacGregor Studio, which was where they used to do these old-time radio shows like Fibber McGee and Molly, Lux Radio Theatre, and all those classic old radio shows. They used to record and distribute radio shows on what they called transcription discs at the time. They were bigger than LPs. They were discs. They were strictly mono, of course. That’s how radio got recorded and distributed at the time. They would send it by mail or shipping something to radio stations around the country. Those stations would play these transcription discs and that was how syndicated radio was done.
It was so old that it had been abandoned because everything was obsolete at that point. They had ripped out all the equipment and stuff, but the acoustics were still the same as they ever were. It turns out that in the later days of C.P. MacGregor, Nat King Cole had done all his work — the independent work that wasn’t done at Capitol [Records] — at C.P. MacGregor. Steve could feel this aura of Nat King Cole lingering around the place, and it still sounded great. Obviously, Steve wouldn’t care what it looked like. He only cared what it sounded like, and it still sounded fine. But there was no infrastructure. He had been doing a lot of work at Record Plant Studios, the recording studio in Los Angeles, which also had remote recording trucks. So Steve decided, “Well, I’ll just bring in a truck that’s designed for recording concerts and stuff… and run the cables in from the parking lot into the inside, and I’ll have a working recording studio.”
I was the technical support for the technology in the truck. If I’m not mistaken, we actually did Hotter than July with the truck. At one point, I built a new control room inside the building for him, but I think that came later. I think we finished the whole project in the truck. At some point, Steve hired me on as staff at Record Plant Studios and to carry on there. Steve and I really hit it off, and we worked together for years there at that site.
What were those first sessions like after you all got settled in at C.P. MacGregor Studios?
He was calling it Wonderland Studios. It immediately became Wonderland to everybody that knew. Although it was never advertised and there was never a signboard, it was just for Steve and that was what it was called. The control room was a truck and that made it on the small side, but in those days, we were working in pure stereo anyway, so we didn’t need a lot more space. The mixing console went from wall to wall. It completely filled that space. We were working and living in a truck. It was just like any other control room. Ultimately, we replaced the truck with a control room that I built for him. That’s where we continued working.
Now, I don’t want to paint the wrong picture, because even though it was a truck, the technology was very advanced. And that was always one of the benefits for me in working with Steve. He was very technologically advanced. He always wanted to be on the leading edge. Later on, I ended up working at Sony in the pro audio division, and we could always count on Steve showing up every year at the trade shows to make sure he was up to date with all the latest technology. That’s just the way he is. He wanted to be on the leading edge. He’s a real advanced thinker. That was great for me because these were the very early days of digital recording. It was right at the beginning, and I knew that I wanted to get involved with digital, but there was hardly any place to go to do that. In Hollywood, there were only a couple of places that even heard of digital at that point. But Steve, being as advanced as he is… Sony saw that as a marketing opportunity, and they brought him all the latest up-to-date technology, including this new digital stuff.
In the beginning, there was not multitrack recording yet. It was only just the CD mastering systems that existed in digital. But very quickly, it became multitrack recording as well. You asked what it was like. Well, it was like being in a small but very advanced control room because this included digital technology before virtually everybody else in Hollywood was doing it.
So, the majority of the recording took place in the recording truck?
All of it did.
Yes, completely from soup to nuts. No one would ever know that because the truck was parked right outside and all these umbilical cables were running to the inside, just like it would be when we would do remote recording for a concert or something. It was the same thing. On the inside, it was a big wide-open space that had small areas, too, for vocal recordings and whatnot. Except for not having a control room, it was like a conventional studio on the inside. It seemed entirely acceptable to us at the time.
A year prior, he had produced the album Journey through “The Secret Life of Plants,” but with this album, he seemed like he was going in a totally different direction. From your vantage point, what was Stevie Wonder’s mindset?
He was always disappointed that Journey through “The Secret Life of Plants” didn’t do better than it did. Frankly, I agree with him. I think that it was unfortunate the record company didn’t promote it more heavily. By the way, regarding Journey through “The Secret Life of Plants,” to my knowledge, it is one of the very few commercial projects that were done in early surround sound. Now, this was before the surround sound as we know it now existed, with a Quad sound, where there was just four speakers in the four corners. Well, as far as I know, the only other commercial project that was ever done in Quad sound was Frank Zappa’s Yellow Shark Symphony, but Journey through “The Secret Life of Plants” was done in Quad.
I think, to this day, nobody has ever heard it in its surround sound glory. They have only heard the stereo versions because that was the only format that the record company released it in. I keep hoping that one of these days that both Steve and the Frank Zappa family would remaster those projects in conventional surround sound so people can hear it that way. But his mindset going into it was he had this connection with having lost Dr. Martin Luther King. It seemed to me that was part of what was motivating him at the time. He was really missing Martin Luther King and what losing him meant to the world. If I’m not mistaken, “Happy Birthday” is on the album.
Yes, that is correct. The inner sleeve is dedicated to Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.
Yes. That was a lot of where his mindset was then. There’s more to it than that, but in my recollection, that was a lot of what was motivating him at the time.
Did he have conversations with people in the studio about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement?
Oh, we talked about it a lot. There was a lot that I didn’t hear. I am sure there were other conversations that the crew had in the truck with him. When we were in the truck, it was so small that we were rubbing elbows all the time, literally. So, we would have all these conversations where we were just virtually face-to-face, and we would talk about that a lot. We talked about what it meant to him, what it meant to the world, and what it said about the state of affairs in America. To this day, it’s a really big deal for him.
During the recording of this album, what was Stevie Wonder’s typical studio routine?
You touched on a sore point there because Steve has not had any vision at all since birth. He’s never seen anything which is amazing. If you look at his lyrics, there was all this lush, rich, visual imagery. He was creating visual imagination. Well, part of that is that he has never seen the sunrise or sunset. We don’t appreciate how much of our regular daily cycles are really locked to the sun. When the sun comes up, we wake up. When the sun goes down, there’s a transition period, but ultimately, we go to sleep. In any case, it’s a regular daily cycle. Well, Steve never developed those habits because he never saw the sunrise and sunset. His daily clock was not 24 hours. It wasn’t synchronized to the sun because he just never developed those habits, which made it challenging for those of us who do cycle with the sun. [laughs]
That was the day of beepers and part of our job was to wear a beeper. We would get beeped at maybe 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning to come down to the studio in the middle of the night. Steve, being the way he was, he would often be busy with other things. We might end up having to wait for him to arrive for a few hours when we always wished we had been home sleeping at that time. That was fine because it was Steve. It just came with the territory. We had a pool table and an air hockey table and stuff. We would be entertained while we were hanging around. By the way, I don’t know how many people know this, Steve plays air hockey like nobody has ever seen. I’ve never seen Steve lose at air hockey. It was just the most amazing thing. He was playing without being able to see a thing; he just does it by ear but he also cheats. He leans all over the table and blocks stuff. I’ve never seen him lose. One way or the other, he always wins in air hockey. We used to play other games, too.
To this day, if I shake hands with Steve, we’re likely going to lapse into thumb-wrestling. It’s just the funniest thing. When he was coming up in high school, he was a wrestler. Sometimes, we’d be hanging around the studio and somehow, we’d get into a wrestling match. We would be down on the ground, slipping around and wrestling.
When would you all begin the recording process?
First of all, we’d wait for hours, but then we would get busy, and we would work a long time. Steve was amazing because he could go a full daily cycle and then take a 20-minute catnap and be ready to go again. It was hard for us to keep up with him because he had this amazing property but that was the way it was.
Where would everybody be positioned in the studio?
Well, the crew would be [engineers] Gary [Olazabal], Bob [Harlan], Peter [Vargo], and me. We would be in the truck and then running back and forth to the inside as needed to set mics, adjust things, or do whatever. Steve and the band would be inside in the studio. Stephanie Andrews, who was his studio manager, would be behind the glass in this separate room that was sealed off from the studio. It was like an observation space. That was an office where she could see what was going on. Stephanie and the band members who weren’t recording would be in that space.
It was an interesting building architecturally too because it was so old. There was all this cool tilework and old-school architectural stuff that made it a really interesting place to be. Steve had an office that was opposite to the lounge where we had the air hockey table and stuff. While we were working, the band and Steve would be on the inside. There wouldn’t always be a band because the way we usually worked was we would record basic tracks, which would include the band usually at that point, and then we would fix parts, if necessary, maybe by overdubbing or replacing tracks. Then, there would be a long period where the band wouldn’t be around anymore, and it would be just Steve and the rest of us. Steve would be working on vocal parts or rehearsing. Typically, a vocal track would be a composite of different takes that would get combined and edited together. Steve is such a perfectionist. He didn’t want anything to ever be released that wasn’t perfect to his mind.
We really spent a long time working on these things, working and reworking and refining and editing and replacing and combining. The band would be around in the beginning, and then occasionally, there would be one or another that would come to work on just their parts or something. Like Larry Gittens would work on a trumpet part or Nate Watts would work on a bass part. Mostly, the band was around when we were doing the basic tracks, except for the exceptions.
What type of equipment did you all use in capturing the sounds?
In the truck, the heart of the system was the mixing console. It was an API console. APIs always had a really great sound. It had to do with the buses that they used, but also the transformers that were part of it. API boards had input and output transformers which never happens anywhere else these days. Then, we would record on a multitrack. There was a transition, and I can’t remember exactly when the transition started, but initially, they were analog 24 tracks. They were 3M analog multitracks, which was always the case with analog, and it required a daily setup and calibration that would take about an hour of setup every day.
From the beginning on that project, we were recording directly to the Sony CD mastering system. We were mastering at that point. That was an interesting period in technology history because it was kind of clunky at the time. The actual recording was on a video deck. It was a Sony three quarter inch U-matic video cassette deck on which was recorded PCM Data, the digital data, so there was an outboard box that was the size of a microwave oven, just for the stereo conversion process, and it was full of electronics. There must have been like a dozen full-sized circuit boards inside this thing just to convert the analog stereo mix to digital.
Then, once it was converted to digital data, it would go out and get recorded on the video deck, as if it was picture only but there was no picture. It was black and white dots that represented the audio. It was PCM data being recorded on a video deck. Well, first of all, there might be multiple mixes that would need to be combined, so for that and for the final compilation, that would require editing on this video deck with a video editor. Those were my responsibilities. Each of those pieces, the conversion box known as the PCM 1600 and then, later on, it became the PCM 1610. So, there was that box, the U-matic video deck, and the editor. Those were things, at that time, that were foreign to recording studios. Fortunately, since Steve was so important to Sony at the time, and because they were just introducing this new technology, he had enough influence with Sony that he insisted that I get factory training on these systems because I needed to be responsible for them.
Can you describe what was it like watching him record during this album?
It was amazing to watch him work. First of all, he is just the most highly accomplished keyboard player. He just owns it. I mean, obviously, he has never read music, but he totally gets it. He gets all the theory, and he performs it with such dexterity and feeling. It was just amazing. By the way, that includes not just piano. He had a special piano that I guess they existed elsewhere in the world, but it was the only one that I’ve ever encountered. It was from Bosendorfer. Piano keyboards are 88 keys. Well, this special Chopin model of the Bosendorfer piano, at the bass note where the keys come to an end, he could lift up this flap. This flap just came up, and there were extra keys down below what was normally the bottom on a piano. I forget but it was like four or five extra keys that went below the lowest note on the piano.
He also had the most advanced electronic keyboards. Everybody knows the clavinet sound that he gave. It was not especially advanced, but it was just part of his sound, but he had sampling systems before anybody else in the world knew about them, at least in LA. The Fairlight system from Australia was brand new. The Synclavier was brand new. Those were sampling systems with complex operating systems. He loved that stuff. He was super-advanced before anybody else in town was doing this stuff. Steve was doing it. He had a personal relationship with Ray Kurzweil, who is now something like the Chief Technology Officer at Google, but at the time, he was with the Kurzweil Company.
Given Steve’s relationship with Ray [Kurzweil], he had what I believed was one of the first reading machines, where at the time someone could take a book and set it down on a glass where it would be scanned like a copier. It would scan a page, and it would read the text. First of all, it would recognize the text and it would convert it to English, and then feed its speech synthesis system. Basically, it would read books to him. I never knew anyone else in the world who had one of these things.
Besides being this magnificent writer and keyboard player, his singing is just so special, and he did it so well. He is really demanding of himself, too. He really wants to get it right. He’ll work on it, and work on it, and work on it forever until he gets it right. By the way, if I recall on that album, he’d also had vocal parts from Michael Jackson on that album. We got to work with Michael Jackson in the process, too, which was pretty cool. There are these times when you can just tell you are in the presence of genius. That was always the way it was with Steve. He was such a phenomenal talent. To watch what he was doing with working out parts on the keyboard or vocal parts was just awesome. I don’t really have adequate language to express what that was really like.
Where would Stevie be most of the time in the studio?
Well, most of the time he’d be on the phone.
He was working the phones a lot. Before cell phones, this is when there were landline phones. There were these kinds of phones where you would have multiple lines on buttons. So he would have multiple conversations going on at the same time. He would have five or six conversations going on. He’d be talking along and he’d say, “Hold please.” He would switch over to the other conversation and resume that one, and then he would go, “Hold please,” and then switch over. He’d keep multiple conversations going at the same time.
That was just his style. It was our job to accommodate him. When they were recording, there were a lot of times when he would be at the console listening and giving instructions because he couldn’t see where the different things were. It would have to be always spoken. That would be a real commonplace one. Other than that, he would be sitting at a keyboard. That was his natural environment. Typically, it would be the Bosendorfer grand piano that I was describing.
We had this really talented keyboard tuner and technician named Keith Albright who was legendary in his own way at the time around town. He was the go-to guy for piano tuning and piano tech stuff. So Steve had this request at one point. He wanted this piano to be just a little bit brighter. Not really a tack piano where you put tack in the hammers, but he wanted it to be a little bit more percussive. He wanted Keith to brighten up the sound by hardening the hammers which was a process that was known. Basically, they coat the hammers with lacquer. They put a lacquer on the hammer. This was before a session one day. I was there at the studio with Keith when he was getting ready to do this. I guess he had tuned it and then he was going to harden the hammers. It was a really cold and damp day. I’m pretty sure it was raining outside. It was cold and humid. The lacquer just wasn’t drying the way it should.
He asked me if he could borrow a heat shrink gun. These were the days where there was a lot of physical wiring to be done, and we would always have a heat shrink gun for shrinking this tubing that we would put on cable ends that we had prepared. We would do the soldering and stuff. There was a heat shrink sleeving that would be slid over the end. We would heat it up with this heat shrink gun that would shrink it down from the heat. He had to borrow my heat shrink gun to heat up the hammers so that this lacquer would dry properly.
So, I went to the shop and got my heat shrink gun and brought it out to Keith. He was going over the hammers, drying up the lacquer with this heat shrink gun when all of a sudden, it burst into flames from the heat. The lacquer had these vapors that were volatile. Here I am with this priceless piano watching it go up in flames right in front of me. It was just astounding. I never saw Keith move so fast in my life. He quickly put it out. He threw a blanket over it or something. There was really no damage. I don’t know if Steve would even remember that actually, but I was there. I saw the whole thing, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Stevie Wonder’s piano up in flames, man.
What was it like recording the vocals for Michael Jackson, Angela Winbush, Eddie Levert, Betty Wright, and Charlie Wilson?
Of that group, the one that stands out distinctly in my memory is Michael Jackson. He was another special talent. He didn’t have the social skills that Steve had. He was really shy. Really, really shy. It was almost pathologic. He would come with his bodyguard and his driver sat outside. He didn’t socialize. He didn’t mix with the other musicians. It seemed to me that it was because he was just so shy. Meanwhile, it didn’t hurt his vocals. Musically, it worked out just fine.
Did Stevie record the majority of these songs in the studio?
Yes, all of them.
Do you remember any of the songs such as: “Rocket Love,” “All I Do,” “Lately,” or “Happy Birthday?”
I remember working on all those songs. One day would flow into the next. It wasn’t like we would work on one dominantly, and then work on others. It all kind of runs together. It’s kind of hard to have really useful comments that are specific to the individual pieces. I hate to say this, but they just kind of all run together in memory at this point. For one thing, it has been 40 years.
You mentioned Stevie Wonder’s band earlier. Did they record alongside Stevie or would they be recorded one at a time?
It was a combination. It would generally start with the band. Then they would work on individual parts. There might have been some exceptions to that, but usually, it would start with the band. In regards to the band and the musicians, Nate Watts was the core of it. He never had to exert himself in that way. For one thing, he was a really big guy. He had just the most monstrous capacity on bass. It was awesome to watch. To this day, I believe he probably still has that presence about him. In a whole lot of ways, he was really the core of it because he laid down that monstrous bass that everything was built on.
He was basically the leader of the whole ensemble?
Yes. He never really presented himself that way, but it kind of worked out that way. It was because everything was built on a bass line, really. That’s the bottom of it, literally and figuratively. The core of the rhythm track was the bass and the drums. Frankly, mostly the kick drum. It would be the bass and the kick drums, and then everything else is like filigree around that. Nate and Steve had a special understanding between them. They were just so simpatico; they were totally in-sync. Steve really respected Nate, and Nate really got what Steve was trying to do. He just delivered; he just did it over and over. He was rock-solid. I’ve been on the road with him. He could always rely on Nate to be as solid as he could be.
Absolutely. Did the band usually practice their takes before recording live?
Yes. They usually would but they were also quick learners. They would work out their parts and then perform them. It generally didn’t take too long because they were professionals. They knew their craft.
What was involved with the process of recording Stevie Wonder’s background vocals?
Those typically happened in separate sessions. There might have been exceptions to that, but I can’t remember any. Backgrounds would happen at a later time. They would get worked out, and they wouldn’t necessarily go as fast as the earlier takes. Steve would be in the truck at that point for sure and would be directing. There was always a little bit of a process involved, of trial and error, and doing and redoing, and maybe combining separate takes and stuff, cutting them together to make it sound the best that it could.
Do you know who Stevie would be on the phone with most of the time?
You might wonder how he could manage a phone book because he doesn’t see anything. He had a device for that from the Braille Institute. It was called a VersaBraille, which was an interesting thing. I never understood how the input would work to it because it had something like six keys, as I recall, that were big keys on the face of it. He would key in stuff to the special codes that braille students know, which I never have understood, but they know it. It would get recorded internally and then it would present output to him. There’s a little strip of a one line of text where these little plastic fingers would pop up to create braille characters like you’ve seen on braille books. This is an active braille display where these little fingers would pop up beside the braille cell. If you’ve ever seen what braille looks like in books, it’s that size. So he would have all these phone numbers and who knows what else he had in there. He had a really deep rolodex of people. From Berry Gordy’s number to who knows who else in the world. It seemed like everybody always wanted to talk to him.
Do you remember if Bob Marley or Gil Scott-Heron came around during the making of the album?
I don’t remember seeing them come around during that time. That doesn’t stand out in my memory. He was working with another reggae group at this time that he was really hoping would take off, but as far as I know, they never did. They were called Third World. Steve had a real liking for reggae.
Are there any other interesting behind the scenes memories?
Well, let’s see. A conversation about Steve wouldn’t be complete without his mom, Lula Mae. She, in those days, was a major presence in his life. He owed so much to Lula Mae. She was a presence and a force to be reckoned with, let me tell you.
She would come around. She wasn’t there all the time but occasionally. Steve really straightened up and did right for his mom. She was still pretty much in charge. She was a major force in his life, to be sure, and a force for the good. He really recognized that he owed her a lot. She helped shape his life in a positive way. He always appreciated it, and he always gave her credit for it and great thanks.
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.